Source: America Magazine
There is a culture war in the West over Islam. It has flared up again following last year’s attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, the daily predations of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and the ongoing violence of Boko Haram in Nigeria; but the contretemps has roiled through every major violent episode involving Islam at least since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Hawkish voices say that Islam is hard-wired for violence and incompatible with democracy and human rights and that the West must fight a long civilizational struggle against this threat. Dovish voices hold that Islam, like every religion, is historically malleable and diverse, home to a few extremists but otherwise hospitable to human rights and democracy; that the West’s history of colonialism and military aggression is responsible for no small part of Islam’s problems; and that dialogue and peacebuilding are called for. Along these lines, the two sides square off, again and again.
Who is right? Might the culture war be mitigated or rendered more complex? Progress begins with identifying the right criterion for a peaceful religion. Often, tolerance is proposed as the measure. The trouble with tolerance, though, is that while it implies restraint from violence toward or co-existence with minority groups, it is temporary, strategic and reversible, much like a truce. One of history’s most famous instances of tolerance was the Edict of Nantes in 1598, in which the King Henry IV of France decreed that Protestant Huguenots would be permitted to worship in a predominantly Catholic France. Two generations later, however, in 1685, Henry’s grandson King Louis XIV revoked Nantes, outlawing the Huguenots and forcing their expulsion.
A better criterion is religious freedom. Ensconced in the leading human rights conventions and in state constitutions around the world, religious freedom is widely affirmed as a fundamental and permanent principle of justice, not to be abandoned. It includes but is more robust than abjuring violence and discrimination, calling for broad respect for persons and communities in the practice and expression of religion. A principle by which people of different faiths who inhabit the same territory live together as citizens enduringly, it is an apposite yardstick for judging whether a religion is peaceful and compatible with human rights or violent and divisive.
A Closer Look
How does Islam fare by the criterion of religious freedom? From a global satellite view, the hawks appear to be closer to the mark. The sociologists Brian Grim and Roger Finke show in their book The Price of Freedom Denied that 78 percent of Muslim-majority countries carry high levels of state restrictions on religion, compared with 43 percent of all other countries and 10 percent of Christian countries, while 83 percent of Muslim-majority countries have high levels of social hostilities (that is, carried out by nonstate groups like terrorist cells) as compared with 30 percent of all other countries and 16 percent of Christian countries. Prevalent among today’s Muslim jurists is a premodern doctrine that enjoins the state to promote Shariah law—or the principles of Islam—in all areas of life and sanctions the state to enforce it through coercion.
Zooming in closer, however, Islam appears more complex, as the doves would have it. Judged by the data found in a widely cited 2009 report of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, “Global Restrictions on Religion,” of roughly 47 Muslim-majority countries, 12, or just over one-fourth, are ranked “low” on a Government Restrictions Index—meaning that they are the most religiously free. Although these states are a minority, they are too numerous to be dismissed as anomalies. Making the case further for diversity in Islam, in many of the 35 Muslim-majority countries that are less than fully free, Islam is not the source of the curtailment of religious freedom.
While it is true that 21 of these countries fit an “Islamist” pattern—meaning that they are governed by strong Shariah law—another 14 are “secular repressive,” which means that the regime controls Islam in order to further a Western ideology of modernization. In many other Muslim-majority countries where religious freedom is scarce, it is Islamic movements that advocate for greater freedom and democracy. In Turkey, for instance, it is the religiously based Justice and Development Party that has sought to pry loose the authoritarianism of a sharply secularist regime. Finally, there now exists a global cluster of Muslim intellectuals who make the case for religious freedom on Islamic grounds.